I managed to visit the Occupy Brighton camp in Victoria Gardens for a few minutes this morning. I had been meaning to go for some time – this was the first opportunity.
I had seen in the media the extreme violence used against protests in New York and Oakland. I had watched the Church of England make complete fools of themselves over OSX outside St Paul’s – a church that preached that Christ ejected the moneylenders from the temple, only to find themselves being pressed by the moneylenders bankrolling St Paul’s to move on a protest of which those clergymen with a bit of imagination realised Christ would probably have supported. More locally, I had heard about Cardiff City council using archaic byelaws to move on a similar camp in Cardiff.
So the question I wanted to answer was a simple one. Why have these camps got the establishment so rattled? What are they running scared of?
My first impressions of the camp were of a clean, quiet, calm orderly place – a few people going about their daily tasks peacefully, the calm a conspicuous contrast to the traffic roaring past a few metres away. Just beside the camp were a number of patches where tents had been pitched, and since moved in order to allow the grass to grow back. This was a place that was practising environmental responsibility in a very practical way.
One of the first things you see on walking into the camp is a sign pointing out that drugs and alcohol are forbidden. This, an activist explained to me, was a collective decision – while there were some supporters who had addiction problems they were not permitted to stay overnight. It’s a reminder that the reality of the Occupy movement is a world away from Cameron’s easy sneer about comatose protesters.
One of the things that was very clear was the public support the camp enjoys. I was told that most people passing the camp were strongly supportive – and that local businesses especially so, providing real moral and practical support. The police were taking the attitude that as long as the camp didn’t cause them extra costs and work, or increase crime, they were unconcerned – in fact, the presence of the camp had reduced crime in the vicinity. Having a Green MP who unequivocally supported the right to protest made a real difference.
Talking for a few minutes to an activist it becomes clear that this camp is, as much as anything, about education – in its broadest sense. It’s about workshops and discussions – and above all about collective decision-making and the challenges that such decision-making brings. We talked about education, and about how young people were being priced out of the university system. We talked about economics, and about how the camp was holding workshops on the myths of money.
We talked about the shock of getting past the lies and ideology of market economics to develop a coherent alternative – Occupy Brighton’s statement is here.
We talked about collective decision-making. Yes, it was difficult. Collective decisions had to be enforced, and more generally people were used to structures of authority and hierarchy. But making collective decisions work through nightly meetings was at the heart of what the camp was about. This was about finding better ways for people to live together.
And this perhaps was the reason why this movement has attracted so much hostility. I’ve often written on this blog about our crisis of democratic legitimacy – both in Britain and internationally. “Technocratic” governments in Greece and Italy, three main political parties in Britain fighting over an ever-smaller political battleground while indulging in ideological consensus – we are being told that the behaviours, structures and ideologies of market economics are inevitable and trump democracy. Here were people who were standing up and asking hard and grounded questions, faced with a system that stared into the abyss in 2008 when the banks collapsed and is gripped with fear. People are throwing off the shackles, and are beginning to realise that the world is both a simpler and more complex place than the elites would have them believe. Elites talk about democracy and are content to permit it as far as it serves their interests. Occupy protesters are eloquently advocating the real thing. No wonder the reaction to this thoughtcrime has been violent.
Collective democratic decision-making? On a planet of seven billion people blighted by grotesque inequalities and vast environmental degradation? It’s a tall order. But can it be any worse than a system based on market economics, pollution and privatisation, and nationalism?
Leaving the camp, I walked up Brighton’s busy London Road. The first shop you see is a pawnbroker. Then – the charity shops, the pound shops, the shops leasing household goods to those who can’t get credit, Macdonalds, all presided over by the bulk of St Bartholomew’s church, that memorial to the well-heeled Anglicanism that sought to remake God in the image of the English gentleman. And I saw people crushed by the daily grind of life under market capitalism – the mind-forged manacles, as Blake put it, still firmly intact. Like William Morris at the end of News from Nowhere one had the sense of returning to a darker, sadder, less sane world.